'You gotta give 'em hope'

Bio-pic about gay rights activist firmly based on historical events

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2009

The phrase "based on a true story" has been terribly watered down. So, when a bio-pic like "Milk" comes around, it is refreshing to have it so firmly based on real history. Director Gus Van Sant makes a point of opening the film with archival footage from the story he is about to tell you. So, before the opening credits are through, the audience has already been taken back in time. Van Sant, with the grainy, faded footage seems to be telling us, "This really is a true story."

It is the true story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay man who was tireless in the 1970s in attempting to get our country to accept homosexuals. "Milk" starts in 1978, a weary Milk talking into a voice recorder as he sits alone in a cramped kitchen. He's a man who knows his assassination is a real possibility. And of course, we already know it is imminent. What cruel irony "Milk" faces us with: Here is Harvey Milk. Here is all the good stuff he accomplished. Here are all the people's lives he made better, and the mark he made on history. Before we are done, however, here is the assassination of Harvey Milk.

From 1978, writer Dustin Lance Black's script rewinds to the start of the '70s. While there have been countless movies that have taken place in the 1970s, "Milk" is unique because of the look at American history we are forced to take. I'm often thankful I was not around for the civil rights era, and now I'm thankful I wasn't around for Harvey Milk's era. Hate is bizarre more often than not, and it is certainly puzzling in "Milk."

As Milk slowly made progress toward acceptance via repeatedly running for office until finally becoming a San Francisco city supervisor in 1977, people like Anita Bryant (she appears frequently in "Milk" via chilling archival footage) and Sen. John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) were equally busy fostering fear and hate.

I won't get too political here, knowing the issues in "Milk" are still issues in our country today. However, I don't feel bad in saying that Bryant, Briggs and all the people who nodded their heads back then - and probably still do today - come across as both scary and stupid.

"Milk" is ultimately a story about hope. I lost count of how many times Milk says, "You gotta give 'em hope." Lance Black's script and Penn's painfully genuine performance paint Milk as a man who understood a lot about the world he was living in. He understood it was going to be an uphill battle. He understood, even accepted, that there were going to be lots of people who would simply find it easier to hate than to try to understand and accept. And he understood that for his fellow gays, it was about hope. If he could give them that ... well, then there was hope for a more civil future.

I haven't even gotten to Dan White (Josh Brolin) yet. He, of course, was one of Milk's fellow city supervisors that eventually shot San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) and Milk. White could probably carry an entire bio-pic of his own.

In my car on the way home from "Milk," National Public Radio was doing a story on upcoming votes dealing with the right for gays to marry. I had to smile. We have come a long way since the '70s, thanks in large part no doubt to Harvey Milk.

We definitely aren't there yet, though.

I guess we'll just have to hope.

• Check out Carson's movie blog at www.juneaublogger.com/movies.

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